February 2013

Looking for the helpers

It was too terrible to imagine. One disturbed man killed his mother, six other adults, twenty young elementary students and then himself in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, a date that will be marked in the lifetimes of so many families from this time on. Each death was a tragedy in its own way. A son murdering his mother. Adults sacrificing their safety and their lives to protect children, friends and coworkers. Children…just children. And a human life, surely with potential for good, something other than this, ends with a final act of killing, robbing those left behind from desperately needed insights into why.

Words flew across offices, hallways, cell phones, TV screens and the internet in response. Words of shock, sadness, disbelief, anger, helplessness, despair and judgment. Of all the words that were spread, the words of a dead man, gentle host to a children's television show for millions, said something different and needed, and these words also spread quickly. "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."" Fred Rogers, "Mr. Rogers"—a formal title that feels more intimate and comforting than his real name—had once again provided a voice of calm and reassurance in the midst of pain and uncertainty. Is it any wonder that a person with the peaceful spirit of Mr. Rogers would have a mother who would say such a wise and helpful thing? Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

It is a profound truth that too often is lost among the daily onslaught of stories of violence, illness, cruelty and pain. No matter where the hurting is in the world, there are helpers and the number of the helpers generally outnumbers those who bring the pain. First responders, police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel. The Red Cross, the Red Crescent, doctors (with and without borders) and nurses. Truck drivers with loads of food, fresh water, clothing, blankets, toothbrushes, soap, and teddy bears. And the list could go on: friends, colleagues, volunteers, neighbors, communities of faith, service groups, schools and school children across the country and beyond. The good people of Newtown finally had to say "thanks but no thanks, we have enough" because there were so many people who wanted to help and express solidarity.

One way of looking at the world is that it is so full of loss and much of the loss is preventable—it doesn't have to be this way. If we were only more attentive, caring, faithful and wise, much of the suffering in the world would be diminished. This is clearly true, but it is not the only true thing, and it is not even the most remarkable true thing. More remarkable, and sometimes amazing, is that whenever and wherever there is suffering, where there is tragedy and disaster, including that caused by ourselves, there are helpers. Mr. Rogers' mother was and is right. There are always, always helpers.

One person among over 330 million in the nation commits a disturbed, horrifying act of mass homicide. Terrible story. True story. But not the end of the story, not even close. Six adults trade their lives for the lives of others. More safely hide and evacuate children from danger, shielding them as much as possible from the horrors of the day. Dozens of others respond and quickly come to the scene to save, protect and minimize the consequences of injuries and trauma. Hundreds, thousands, millions pray, offer support, send comfort both spiritual and material. Policymakers and leaders look deep inside, broaden their scope, consider, reconsider, deliberate, debate on what can be done to help this time and perhaps prevent a next time. It's necessary, and because it's full of pain, fear, compassion, and concern—all of the human stuff—it's also unavoidably messy. Life is messy. That's why we need the helpers.

We can continue to find ways to be helpers ourselves. We were made for this and we are needed. And, thankfully, there will always be helpers. Always, so keep looking.

Greg Adams
Center for Good Mourning

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